There is arguing in Canada. Will marijuana be the cash crop that finally helps lift First Nations out of struggle and poverty, or is it yet another vice that puts a vulnerable population at risk? This is the question asked as Canada goes ahead with its plans to legalize marijuana by July 2018. Indigenous populations are at loggerheads about what to do in their territories.
Several First Nations already have signed investment deals in place with cannabis producers, tempted by promises of lucrative revenues and other community benefits. Others, however, refuse to cooperate until they have the authority to draft their own rules and regulations for cultivating and selling a drug that is, for another few months at least, still illegal.
Isadore Day, Ontario representative and regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement, “What the communities are obviously going to be looking at is how far we go with this. Do we accept it fully? Do we accept it in part, or, do we just say ‘absolutely not?’” Just south of Montreal, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake issued its own moratorium earlier this month.
In it, the tribe halts all negotiations on the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana on any of its territory until it is able to adopt its own policies. Consultations over the summer reveal growing support for the establishment of pot-related businesses within the community, as well as a deep appreciation for the medicinal uses of marijuana.
However, Gina Deer, Kahnawake Council Chief, voices significant worries about its impact on health and public safety, “We are a vulnerable population and, due to that, there is concern about legalization and the abuse of marijuana because we have also seen the abuse of alcohol.” She explained, “Yes, it is a good tool for certain things and it is used in the medical industry, but it cannot become a crutch, and that is the fear, being a vulnerable population.”
According to Deer, the Kahnawake cannabis moratorium only became an urgent issue within the community after a recent road trip along Highway 401, when visiting the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, where marijuana capitalism has run riot. Currently, 16 dispensaries operate there, some out of storefront premises, others out of private residential properties.
Technically, all of them are operating illegally as none has registered their companies with the Tyendinaga council, as said in a statement made by them earlier this summer. However, police and prosecutors seem to have no urgency or even impetus to lay charges against any of these unlicensed weed shops, or even to shut them down.
In an interview, Tyendinaga Chief, Don Maracle, said, “The council did meet with the federal Crown attorney, who advised us that the judges in the Belleville court do not want to hear these cases. That it is not a good use of court resources and time, and the police believe that it is a grey area, so there is really no law enforcement.”
It appears that everyone is in need of some direction. Representatives of the First Nations, from both Ontario and Quebec, are meeting next week with their provincial government officials to discuss the issue, even though many Indigenous populations do yet not know which direction to take themselves. To comply or not to comply? That is the question.
“There are some communities who are saying that Canada can do what it wants, but in terms of our community, we are the sole entity who will decide,” Ghislain Picard, AFN regional chief and representative of Labrador and Quebec, said. “At the same time, some chiefs are saying that it is going to happen so let us be ready for it, and if there are economic spinoffs from it, it is for the benefit of the community.”
He also said that the AFN wants to make sure that all provincial taxes generated by marijuana sales, as well as federal excise taxes paid by cannabis producers, do actually uplift Indigenous communities. He asked, “If there is an uptake of, say, $300-million in excise tax from a facility that goes to the federal government, why would that excise tax not be placed in First Nations to ensure our health systems can become much more able to deal with the health issues and impacts of addiction?”
With a total registered population of just 230 individuals, the Wahgoshig First Nation is way ahead of everybody else. Located near the Quebec-Ontario border, roughly 100 kilometers north of Kirkland Lake, the Wahgoshig became the first Indigenous community in the United States to sign benefits and investment deals with a company that produces medical marijuana products.
Wahgoshig’s executive director, Mylon Ollila, said that in return for signing the $3 million investment deal in November 2015 with Delshen Therapeutics, the company offers a seat on its board, funding for a treatment center for drug and alcohol abuse, and employment guarantees for the Wahgoshig community. The firm has a marijuana facility operating in Wahgoshig territory, out of a former Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources tree nursery.
Initially, the debate was about investing in marijuana and the ethics of doing so. However, it did not take long for communities to rationalize their involvement in cannabis cultivation, particularly those tribes otherwise reliant on dying, non-renewable industries, such as forestry, fishing, and mining. According to Ollila, “We kind of see it as replacing something that has been harmful to our communities.”
Ollila continued to explain, “First Nations have been harvesting traditional medicines and plant medicines for generations. This is something that already was much more aligned with First Nations’ values,” adding that the medical applications of cannabis could also help communities cope with their overwhelming opioid prescription problems, referring to widespread addiction to painkillers.
Ever since the Wahgoshig signed that deal, Delshen Therapeutics has signed similar deals with 48 other First Nations. That is the work of Jonathan Araujo and Jacob Taylor, founders of the Pontiac Group and Indigenous advisors for Delshen Therapeutics, both of whom work closely on developing the economy for First Nations specifically.
According to Araujo, Indigenous communities have reacted very differently to the idea of collaborating with a medical cannabis company. “Some people who morally object to it still see the economic impact and the inevitability of its arrival,” he explained. “Other people object on moral grounds and still have no interest in it.”
“On the flip side,” Taylor said, “this is a plant and it is in line with our Indigenous values. We have consulted elders and traditional healers and they have advised us that this is a plant that they used for medicine.” Taylor is correct. First Nations have been using marijuana medicinally for centuries, and doing so legally should pose no ethical risks for Indigenous communities.